TAMPA, Fla. — Tears streamed down faces and some smiles started to reappear inside the Oregon locker room as the Ducks dealt with the agony of defeat while reflecting on the thrill of the program’s first Final Four appearance.
Coach Kelly Graves thanked seniors Maite Cazorla and Oti Gildon for helping to build something special and then said: “We’ll be back.”
Oregon, which made all of the big shots down the stretch to topple Mississippi State in the Elite Eight five days earlier, fought another valiant fight but couldn't quite finish this time, falling 72-67 to Baylor in the national semifinals Friday at Amalie Arena.
“We were in this game, we were up when we wanted to be up and we just weren’t able to close it out,” Sabrina Ionescu said. “So this one is going to sting for a while.
“We were a game away from winning a national championship, and I think if we had gotten in that position we could have gotten it done.”
Instead, the Bears (36-1), the top overall seed in the women’s NCAA Tournament, survived and advance to play defending national champion Notre Dame in Sunday's championship game. The Irish defeated 11-time champion UConn, 81-76, in the other national semifinal.
Satou Sabally made a 3-pointer to tie the score 67-67 with 1:36 left, but the Ducks (33-5) did not score again.
“Obviously we still hurt,” Sabally said. “Even in a couple years, I’ll be hurting because I know we belong out there, we belong in the final game.
“It’s going to suck for a while, but I’m going to be proud of this team. I’m proud of our seniors, Oti and Maite, and everything they have done for this program.”
Oregon entered the Final Four as the nation’s top 3-point shooting (41.7%) team and third in field-goal percentage (50.5%). Baylor, which was No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense (31.4%), held the Ducks to 36.8% from the field and 37.5% on 3-pointers.
Ionescu, who finished with a team-high 18 points, was held to 6-for-24 shooting.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey sought out the Wade Trophy winner, the award given to the national player of the year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, after the game.
“She just said that I had built something real special here and I was able to be a part of that,” Ionescu said of the conversation. “She told me that I had a lot of grit and to keep going and that I was one of the best players she had ever witnessed.”
Ionescu said she has not made a decision about whether to play in the WNBA this summer or to return and play her senior year with the Ducks.
The two-time Pac-12 player of the year and first-team All-American spoke about taking the lessons learned from Friday’s loss into next season at times, and used the past tense when talking about Oregon while answering other questions.
“We have to be able to adjust. I have to be able to finish. We didn’t do a great job of that,” Ionescu said. “That’s something we’re going to learn and take into consideration next year.”
Baylor’s bigs, 6-foot-7 center Kalani Brown (22 points) and 6-4 forward Lauren Cox (21 points) were as good as advertised.
The Bears — who won national titles in 2005 and 2012 — will get an opportunity to scratch their seven-year itch, despite getting outscored 36-0 on 3-pointers.
“They’re just good all-around players. They’re shooters, they can defend, they’re strong and calm,” Ruthy Hebard, who was held to four points and nine rebounds, said of competing against Baylor’s twin towers. “They’re great players and it was fun to play against them. It helped my game out and I’m excited for next year.”
Baylor guard Chloe Jackson answered Sabally’s 3-pointer with a driving layup to put Baylor back on top for good.
Sabally passed up on a potential game-winning 3-pointer and then missed a 15-foot jumper on the next possession. Oregon had to foul at that point, and the Bears made three free throws to close out the win.
“I’ll just mature from it,” said Sabally, who scored 16 points but was limited to 22 minutes due to foul trouble. “In the end, I’ll be thankful for it.”
Hebard scored on the pick-and-roll for the first time all game, Erin Boley rattled in a mid-range jumper and Cazorla hit another clutch 3-pointer during a 7-0 run to give the Ducks a 64-61 lead with 6:10 remaining.
Mulkey called a timeout to let her veteran team figure out how to respond.
“You know what I remember about that timeout? Kalani Brown opening her mouth and saying, ‘Juicy (Landrum), we got this, we are all right,’” Mulkey said. “That's all that needed to be said. She's a senior. There was nothing to draw up. There were no magical words to say. Go play.”
The Bears led 56-55 entering the final 10 minutes after Cox grabbed an offensive rebound and scored with 4.4 seconds left in the third quarter.
Boley, who was 4-for-12 behind the arc, had given the Ducks the lead with a corner 3-pointer on the previous possession.
“I just thought we shot a few too many (3s), a couple not so good ones. But that's what they were giving us tonight. If we have a normal shooting night, those 3s for twos are more successful,” Graves said. “I don't think that's where the game was lost. I thought we had a couple of defensive breakdowns late. Even though the boards were relatively within reason, they made some key offensive rebounds late.”
Sabally and Ionescu each knocked down a 3-pointer early in the third quarter to give the Ducks a 40-37 lead.
Baylor answered with an 8-0 run with all four made field goals coming in the paint.
Hebard, who was held scoreless in the first half, grabbed an offensive rebound and then scored to cut the deficit to 47-44.
A three-point play by Ionescu gave the Ducks a 52-51 advantage.
Boley knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to give Oregon an 11-4 lead at the first media timeout, but the Bears answered with a 10-0 run capped with a basket by Cox.
Ionescu completed a four-point play with eight seconds left in the second quarter to give Oregon a 34-33 lead at the intermission.
"Just the sisterhood that we’ve built here," Ionescu said when asked what she will remember most about the 2018-19 Ducks. "I think we’ve paved the way for a lot of recruits, a lot of players that are trying to find a college to play for, there’s nowhere better to be than here.
"I was blessed to play with these players and these coaches and with this administration here. I would not advise anyone to go anywhere else but here."